Axidava

The Black Door

“Lieutenant Townley,” said Captain Von Dee sharply, “as a spy you will be executed in two hours. Pursuant to my custom you will be given a choice in the matter. Either you may elect to be shot in the customary manner, or you may pass through the Black Door which you see behind me. State your choice when the hour comes.”

Von Dee—“Von Dee the whimsical” they called him in the trenches—turned to his reports while Lieutenant Townley was led back to the cell. A great hopelessness fell upon the latter. So this was the end then? All his hopes, his plans with regard to marriage to Cecile were to be swept away. It was difficult to realize that in another hour he would be separated by an unfathomable void from the woman whom he loved like life itself and trusted like no man had ever trusted woman before.

“Shot … or the Black Door….” Von Dee’s words came back to him. What horrible fate—which legend held was worse than death—met those who passed beyond the Black Door? He knew that not one of death prisoners had dared to pass beyond it. Each had chosen death at the hands of the firing squad.

A half hour passed. Then, suddenly, a scrap of paper fluttered into his hands. He opened it and read:

“Choose the Black Door. I know.” It was signed Cecile.

Now the hour for the execution could not come soon enough. Cecile had remembered! Cecile had saved him. Perhaps behind the Black Door he would only be maimed or crippled and could go back to Cecile. As the guards led him into Von Dee’s quarters his heart pounded gladly. In the gloom of the room he could see Von Dee and a stranger talking. In another moment he would tell Captain Von Dee that he, Lieutenant Townley, elected to pass through the Black Door.

He waited. Apparently his presence was not noted. He could hear scraps of conversation: “I’ve always maintained,” Von Dee was saying, “that, no matter how brave a man, he will choose a known form of death rather than an unknown….”

There was a lull, and then the other voice said: “And you are the only one who knows what lies beyond the Black Door?”

“No,” Von Dee answered his brother. “A woman knows.” Then he added with a light laugh: “She was a former mistress of mine!”

Lieutenant Townley heard, trembled, turned white, then stiffened. Von Dee was before him, talking. “Well, Lieutenant,” he said, “do you elect the Black Door?”

“I do not!” the prisoner answered. Von Dee nodded to the guards who led Lieutenant Townley away. A moment later came the report of the firing squad on the drill grounds.

“What did I tell you!” cried Von Dee to his brother. “Lieutenant Townley, one of the bravest, couldn’t face the unknown. He went the usual way.” For several moments he puffed his cigar silently, then: “Birwitz,” he asked suddenly, “do you know what lies beyond the Black Door?”

The younger Von Dee shook his head.

“Freedom,” said Captain Von Dee. “And I’ve never met a man brave enough to take it!”

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